With this weekend’s release of the new Superman film, Alan Moore’s essay on the history of comics in Occupy Comics #2 may make you feel a bit guilty.
Those having watched or planning on watching the film should know a bit more of how Superman came to the big screen. See, it’s well-known in the comic industry that there’s been a long legal battle between the estates of Siegel and Shuster against DC Comics that recently squashed any claims the two estates had to Superman. A lot has also been said about some of the questionable tactics that have been used to quell the lawsuit.
Alan Moore, who is no stranger to creator rights, has a shared distaste for the way DC does business. Perhaps it was all of the Before Watchmen mess or his own squabbles with DC over the rights for Watchmen that fueled this preview section of his multi-part essay for Occupy Comics called Buster Brown At The Barricades.
Here’s an excerpt from part three of the essay, which you can read in Occupy Comics #2:
With the end of Prohibition during 1933, bootlegging was quite clearly no longer an economically sustainable endeavour. Printing paper, numbering among the shortages of the Depression, was apparently still readily available to the criminal interests who had until then seen publishing as nothing more than a convenient cloak for smuggling alcohol. The prurient spicy pulps, predictably immensely popular, were seen as a potential means of partly filling the financial gap left by the inconvenient demise of the illicit liquor trade. Their profitable pages swollen by occasional moonlighting Weird Tales alumni such as Lovecraft confederates E. Hoffman Price and R. E. ‘Conan’ Howard (masquerading as ‘Sam Walser’), Armer’s spicy pulps successfully negotiated moral outcries and rebukes until the early 1940s, when they finally succumbed to wartime shifts of national mood and a combined assault from legislators, censorship groups, the crusading New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and the Legion of Decency. For some years prior to that point, however, a decline in sales and all the added nuisance of campaigns and pressure groups had meant that publishing alternatives were being actively looked into by the business interests that had turned a handsome profit from imaginative editor Frank Armer’s lurid innovation.
The controlling influence behind the Spicy titles was the colourful and somewhat shady printer Harry Donenfeld. Reputedly a former bootlegger and rumoured to be active in the publishing and circulating of the aforementioned Tijuana Bibles, it might well be thought that Donenfeld was excellently situated in a printing industry that had apparently by then become dependent on its good relations with the criminal fraternity, a necessary factor in acquiring a reliable supply of paper. During 1934 the sudden acquisition by another outfit, Eastern Color, of a significant quantity of newsprint paper, and that publisher’s attendant need for product at short notice had led to the publishing of issue one of Famous Funnies, a makeshift repackaging of various already-popular newspaper strips. This proved to be an unexpected success on the newsstands, ably demonstrating the enormous market which existed for this novel and untested format and, almost by accident, arguably establishing America’s first comic book. Pulp publishers like Harry Donenfeld, perhaps inferring from their balance sheets that the pulps’ glory days were coming to an end, were quick to spot the possibilities of this new popular phenomenon. Though they did not have access to acclaimed newspaper characters like those in Famous Funnies, it was obviously possible to generate generic copies: lacking Lee Falk’s Mandrake, one could simply substitute in-house creations like Fred Guardineer’s Zatara. Harry Donenfeld, in partnership with former union accountant, the immensely shrewd Jack Liebowitz, seized eagerly upon the comic book as his next venture on the more disreputable lower rungs of publishing. To further these ambitions, the erstwhile alleged rum-runner and pornographer first instituted the new company that would in time be known as D.C. Comics.
Early titles from the line, such as Detective Comics, sold robustly with their copycat array of tough detectives, comical buffoons, and the obligatory tuxedo-clad magicians, but had yet to find the killer application that would ultimately prove to be the industry’s main selling point and most reliable standby. This arrived in 1938 when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, teenage science fiction fans from Cleveland, first presented Harry Donenfeld’s formative comic business with the unique, vitalising character it had been looking for; a flagship concept that would both define and dominate the sprawling industry which comic books would very soon become. Debuting in the company’s new title Action Comics, Superman turned out to be a publishing sensation. Soon, Donenfeld’s company and every other trend-conscious pulp publisher were mass-producing vaguely paranormal characters in leotards, hoping to duplicate the staggering success of the original. Siegel and Shuster’s pivotal creation was the cornerstone of modern mainstream comics, just as the appropriation of their character by means that some have seen as dubious would seem, unfortunately, to have laid a template for the business practices which have prevailed within the comics business ever since.
Reportedly finagled from Siegel and Shuster’s unsuspecting grasp when the two young men were called up to fight in World War II, their character precipitated a tsunami of costumed or masked adventurers amidst which Superman would gradually become almost completely unremarkable. However, given the predominance that Superman and the entire genre which followed him would in the end achieve, a closer look at the initial presentation would seem to be called for. Almost certainly by instinct rather than by psycho-social analysis, two Cleveland teenagers had crafted a near-perfect and iconic fantasy which spoke to something deeply rooted in the psyche of working America: propelled to Earth (and, more specifically, America) from an exploded home-world during infancy, the character, like many of his readers or their parents, was an immigrant. Then there’s the usually-unexamined matter of his humble rural upbringing, a far cry from the throng of wealthy socialites, arms manufacturers, doctors and scientists who would provide respectable and largely middle-class civilian alter-egos for the cape-clad multitude that followed hot on Superman’s red-booted heels.
Pick up a copy of Occupy Comics #2 to continue Moore’s essay and read more stories talking about the Occupy Movement. It hits shelves June 19th.